Knowing God, loving the church & loving the lost

As part of a writing project, I was asked to produce an article outlining our main ideas. We’ve since decided to run in a different direction but rather than scrap the article altogether as wasted work, I thought I would put it here.

Indulge, for a moment, a picture of marital harmony and a husband who dearly loves his wife. This husband wants to spend whatever time he can with his spouse because he loves her. The more he gets to know her, the more he loves her still. In his love for her, he naturally wants to do things for her because he knows it will please her. This isn’t to curry favour – he knows that she loves him too – it is the overflow of his love for her.

This presses into his relationship with his children. He loves his wife and so wants to have children with the one he loves. When the children come along, he loves them because he first loved his wife. The result of loving his wife means that they both want to have, and love, their children.

But his wife also has friends she wants to invite into the home as guests. These are not people the man would naturally seek out as friends, but because his wife loves them, he loves and welcomes them too. He goes to their parties and weddings, he spends time with them in different ways, not because he loved them first, but because his wife loves them, and he loves his wife. The husband’s love of his wife leads directly to his desire to reach out to those she loves too.

God and the church

That’s all very well and good but what has that got to do with anything? I think it captures something of how life in the church ought to function.

All too often, the church puts the cart before the horse. We are quick to cast vision and press into strategies. We want to know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. We want a 5-year plan leading to a great leap forward. We want to be productive for the kingdom and we think we’ve got the skills and aptitude to make it happen.

But the Lord has never been one to indulge whatever seems good in our own eyes. His plans are rarely ours. His means of building his kingdom don’t always square easily with what seems sensible to us. The Lord’s means of building his church rests less on our tactics and stratagems and more centrally upon our relationship with him.

A husband who loves his wife will want to serve her, his family and those who she wants to invite into their home. In the same way, it is those who have a deep and vibrant love for the Lord who will love those that he loves. If we want to have a rich church life, it begins in our love for Christ. If we are driven by a desire to reach the lost with the gospel, that flows from a healthy church life which itself derives from a healthy relationship with God.

Relationship with God

This idea is not a new one. In his 1973 book, Knowing God, Jim Packer said:

Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives… The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.’[1]

Packer recognised that knowing God has clear implications for how we live. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1646) tells us that the purpose for which we were created is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The very purpose for which we were made is to enter into a relationship with the living God and to enjoy him. It is only once we know who God is, and we understand what he is like, that we can begin to fathom how we should function together as his people and subsequently reach out to others so that they might enjoy him too.

Knowing God, loving the church

So how can it be the case that loving God leads to a love for his people? This is a connection that scripture makes clearly enough. When Peter is restored following his denial of Christ, three times Jesus asks him whether he loves him. Each time Peter answers, the Lord replies by saying, ‘feed my sheep’ or ‘tend my sheep.’ Peter’s answer that he loved the Lord, according to Jesus, should work its way out in his love for Jesus’ people.

The apostle John puts it simply: ‘Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen’ (1 John 4:20). John makes a clear connection between our love for God and our love for his people. Elsewhere, he claims ‘Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light… but anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness’ (1 John 2:10f). Again, John connects love for God with love for his people.

Jesus said, ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35). It is striking that the sign of genuine belief is not our excellent programmes, nor attendance at lots of meetings, but our love for God’s people. This is how the world will know that we belong to Christ. Our love for him works out in our love for his people.

Loving the church, loving the lost

So, if we love the Lord, we will naturally love his people. But is it really the case that if we love God’s people we will necessarily want to reach the lost? How does a love for God’s people engender an evangelistic zeal to reach those who are perishing?

Interestingly, it is specifically the love shown within the community of believers that is the principal apologetic that led unbelievers to faith in the Early Church (cf. Acts 2 & 4). They were attracted to the believing community because they saw the love the Christians had for one another which flowed from their love for the Lord himself.

The opening of John’s first letter is interesting in this regard too. He says:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

John was driven to take the gospel to the lost because he wanted fellowship with them. He wanted them to enjoy life with Christ and wanted to enjoy it with them in fellowship. John’s joy would be complete by having fellowship with those who have come to know Jesus.

But the Bible goes further. The local church is the means God has ordained for mission. It is notable that Peter says, ‘you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9). We are not a series of individuals called to mission on our own, but a church of God’s people who, together, proclaim his glory. As we love the local church, people will see our love for one another and be attracted to it and we will work together, in obedience to Christ, to reach out to the lost. It is for this reason Paul could say, in Romans 15:19, ‘from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.’ Clearly Paul hadn’t spoken to every individual in those places. But what he had done is plant local churches who will do local evangelism, attracting local people by their evident love for the local believers and reaching out to local unbelievers with the gospel so that they can welcome them into local fellowship and, like John, their joy may be complete.

So, what does all this mean for us? Our life together as God’s people centres on our ongoing, vibrant relationship with the living God. As we cultivate a deep and loving relationship with Christ, we will develop a deep and loving fellowship in our churches. As we express clear and evident love toward the Lord’s people, other will look on and be drawn to it and we will be encouraged to reach out to those beyond our four walls. Our joy will be made complete first in Christ, then in his people and all the more as we reach out and see growth in our local fellowship.

[1] Packer, J.I., Knowing God, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), p. 17